Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta is eligible for free agency following the upcoming season, and given that he’s repped by Scott Boras you can bet he’s setting the bar high for his next contract. Speaking of which, here’s what Jon Heyman of FanRagSports reports about Arrieta’s upcoming free agency:
Cubs people love Arrieta, and helped turn him into a big star. However, the belief is that they wouldn’t go more than four years, if that. Arrieta is looking for a mega deal along the lines of the Max Scherzer contract with the Nats …
Heyman’s Inside Baseball includes much more from all around the league, so give it a read.
As for Arrieta, that’s indeed an ambitious target. Scherzer, who has now won a Cy Young Award in each league, signed a seven-year, $210 million pact with the Nationals before his age-30 season in 2015. Arrieta, if he indeed hits the market next winter, will be going into his age-32 season, so that’s one difference.
With pitchers, though, it’s more about skills baseline and retention than age, and that’s what’s going to drive Arrieta’s market. On that point, there are some similarities. Each sits in the mid-90s with his fastball (four-seamer for Scherzer, sinker for Arrieta), and each throws two flavors of breaking ball (hard slider and slower curve). Scherzer uses his changeup more than Arrieta does, but Arrieta rounds out his primary four-pitch repertoire by throwing a four-seamer at times.
As well, Scherzer and Arrieta each reached the next level in terms of performance after being traded and tweaking their approaches. For Scherzer, adding a curve to his mix on Detroit’s watch allowed him to be less fastball-heavy, and that’s when he turned into a frontline ace. Arrieta, meantime, took the next step after being acquired by the Cubs and tinkering with his pitch mix, release point and even position on the rubber. One difference is that Scherzer never reached the performance depths that Arrieta endured while in Baltimore. Throughout recent history, though, they’ve been comparable in terms of run prevention.
Speaking of which, let’s compare Scherzer’s three seasons leading up to free agency (2012-14) to Arrieta’s past three seasons (2014-16) ...
As you can see, Scherzer gets the edge in terms of command and control, but Arrieta is ahead when it comes to run prevention. One difference worth noting, though, is that Scherzer generally played in front of poor defenses in Detroit, while Arrieta has generally enjoyed strong fielding support with Chicago. Also of note is that Scherzer is much more of a fly-ball pitcher than Arrieta is.
Insofar as Arrieta’s goal of approaching Scherzer money -- i.e., commanding a contract worth $200 million or more -- a couple of things bear consideration. One, inflation is a factor. Scherzer signed his deal going into the 2015 season, as noted. Arrieta will have three years of inflation working in his favor, and as we’ve seen the market for starting pitchers tends to out-pace even the overheated market for free agents in general. Also, Arrieta’s walk year is still ahead of him.
That’s the key point: Much will hinge on how Arrieta performs in 2017. His 2015 season was legendary, but he was “merely” very good last season. His ERA+ tumbled from 215 in his Cy Young season to 129 last year. That’s easy enough to dismiss, as there’s a lot of randomness and luck baked into run prevention numbers, especially on a season-to-season basis. More troubling, though, is that Arrieta went from striking out 27.1 percent of opposing hitters and walking 5.5 percent of same in 2015 to striking out 23.9 percent of batters and walking 9.6 percent of them last season. That’s an obvious degradation of command-and-control skills, and all you needed to do was watch Arrieta attempt to spot his hard stuff in 2016 to see it in action. Very often, he didn’t seem to know where the ball was going. It still worked for him, generally speaking, as he turned in a strong season. However, he looked not much like the force of nature he was in 2015.
And that’s going to be the driver. He doesn’t need to get back to ‘15 levels -- he was so great that season that it will almost certainly stand as a career year. However, if Arrieta is to command Scherzer/David Price money then he’ll need to stake out a middle ground between the otherworldly excellence of 2015 and good-but-mortal outputs of last season. If a loss of durability or continued loss of command plague him in 2017, then his market will be very different.
The impulse is to wave away high-dollar comparables that fall from the mouths of agents, but in this instance it’s very achieveable for Arrieta. However, a rebound of sorts in the season to come might be a prerequisite to hauling in $200 million on the open market.